A head rub, a caress, a head massage, tenderness, affection. There isn’t one word in English or Spanish I can find to properly translate this Brazilian Portuguese word cafuné .
The best description to describe cafuné in English is ” running your fingers through the hair of someone you love.”
Cafuné is a force of affection, of tenderness, but most importantly it’s a calming force. It’s what mothers do to their child. The partner does to a partner after a long day of work. It is a sign of love, of you hands kissing your head to go to sleep and sooth your mind and thoughts. It’s a friend’s hand hugging your soul by tenderly touching your strands of hair. It’s when words can’t do justice and fall short, so your hands come in for an embrace.
My aim is to not translate a word, but to translate a history, a mean of survival, of love, and healing in times of uncertainty, of hate and human suffering , and times of perplexity . It’s a humane way to look at suffering, as mean not to be consumed but as a pure human condition.
If you didn’t hear this word in Brazil you surely witnessed it happen in Brazil, especially in Salvador da Bahia. Friends, lovers, and family caressing each other’s hair. It’s as common as shaking hands ( in Bahia cafuné might actually be more common than shaking hands….).
I am very intrigued by words, languages, and the human condition. When a word can not be translated into one simple word into another language, I find it as a source of uniqueness to that culture. There isn’t one word for cafuné in English nor in Spanish. The word cafuné is uniquely Brazilian. Just like the word ” Saudade” that doesn’t quite fit just into one word in English.
The origin of the word cafuné is actually from the African language of Yoruba that was transmitted among the slaves that arrived in Brazil. Brazil by far was the largest recipient of slaves from the trans-Atlantic slave trade receiving 4.8 million slaves from Africa. North America in comparison received 388,747—less than 4 percent of the total 10 million slaves who made it to the Americas.
It is was the African slaves who used to do it to each other and that’s how the origin of the Yoruba word got transmitted into current day Brazilian Portuguese. African slaves would caress each other’s hair, fazer cafuné, and this is how Cafuné got incorporated into Brazilian Portuguese and Brazilian culture. Other important words incorporated into Brazilian Portuguese from Yoruba language surround words for food, religion, and festivity: Mandioca which is the food cassava, Acarajé – the red fried patty that is part of Baiano cuisine with its yoruba origins reflecting Candomble and its name in Yoruba is akara. Other expressions incorporated is Axé ( ase) , which is where you see more evident in Bahia, hence the “axé of Bahia. “axé” translates to good energy and spirit. It is also the name of the high-energy musical genre Axe. The famous afro- percussion group Olodum derives also from Yoruba ( Michael Jackson ” They don’t care about us” video featured Olodum was shot in Salvador,Bahia,after all) .
All these Yoruba- derived words that survived relate to the nutrition of a human- of the body,spirit, and soul. Remnants of African past evident in the cuisine, artistic expressions, religion, and music: Moqueca, acarajé, Capoeira, Axe , Candomble. You see this very much present in Bahia ( read: decolonize travel, why Paris, not Salvador) for more of an understanding.
It was the form of maintaining humanity amidst a slave society trying to deprive them of their humanity. Cafuné was one part of this mechanism that has survived and provides to nourish the human spirit.
Cafuné was and is the human form of an anti-depressant pill. Cafuné is the human form of a self-help book when people don’t have libraries. The human form of art to express affection when people don’t have museums. Cafuné was the human form of therapy when people don’t have therapists.
Affection is a human way of surviving, Love is healing. Affection is a coping mechanism and applicable to all.
And Bahia has not had an easy past, it is still one of the poorest regions in Brazil – but Bahia is known and considered even by Brazilians as the happiest and hospitable people in Brazil( and in general Brazilians are pretty happy people, so for them to consider Baianos the happiest says a lot) . It has the lowest suicide rate yet one of the highest homicide rate.
The art, the affection, the unlimited number of culture festivals and programming ironically center around Pelourinho, the historical center of Salvador that once was the Slave Market, and even today its residents are mostly black and is a neighborhood with issues of poverty.
There is this dichotomy of human suffering and human joy that runs so parallel in Bahia that sheds light of the human condition so opposite but so uniquely human of pain and happiness.
This is what I have learned about Bahia and Brazil from this one word.
I leave you with the song ” Vem Meu Amor” that is featured in the opening scence of the movie “ O pai,O” a heart-wrenching film shot in Salvador, Bahia. This is Pelourinho,the historic center of Salvador , which is host to Carnaval and limitless shows and concerts, and was once the center of the slave market. This movie is Salvador in film . I lived on those streets and when I first saw this, you walk out and see these characters in real-life in Pelourinho. This is why I love art, words, and humans..and Bahia.
The song, a classic song performed by Olodum and Daniela Mercury, talks about loneliness and love- the universal points of happiness and suffering for humans
And more moments of Cafuné.